Managing Feelings — 28 October 2003
How to feel better when you are hurt

Hurt feelings are part of every relationship. Even the most loving,
attentive and caring couples occasionally experience unintended
emotional pain. What is the best way to deal with your hurts effectively
and graciously?

We feel hurt when we perceive a reduction in our self-worth – when we
feel slighted, ignored, discounted, minimized, mocked or poorly viewed
by others. It is a response to an experience of shame. This shame often gets initiated in childhood and adversely affects our connection with
our peers.

Many children suffer ridicule by others for being different. Even
qualities which later in life may become major assets, (such as being
tall, artistic, bilingual etc), may be a cause for torment at an earlier
age. Our need to blend and be accepted by our peers may be jeopardized
by being unique. When these variances are publicly mocked we feel shame
and hurt. Being part of a group has major survival benefits and being
excluded poses a serious survival threat.

Dr. Karen Horney, one of the most creative psychoanalysts after Freud,
described the search for connection with others as “moving toward
people”. This motion stems from the need “to be liked, to belong, to be
helped. the insatiable urge to feel safe”.

The physical sensations of hurt are often described by people as
residing in the center of their chests, as a hollowed, vacuum, empty
wounded space. Some speak of “having been punched in the stomach”.
Others may feel bruised elsewhere in their bodies, but the physiological
manifestations of emotional injury are universally unpleasant.

To feel securely loved we rely on being viewed positively by our
partners. We invest a great deal of energy in maintaining and
strengthening the belief that our mates like and value us. Any behavior
by our lovers, which is seen as veering from this premise, leads us to
feel wounded and insecure. Most people feel shame when their
imperfections are recognized. It is as though others_ awareness of our
imperfections render us less valuable and less lovable.

Some people feel reluctant to discuss their wounded feelings with their
partners for fear of confrontation and possible exacerbation of the
hurt. Others feel inept in relating their emotional injuries in a way
that will lead to a soothing resolution. They worry about offending
their partners and thus avoid dealing with their own discomfort.

I have heard individuals say “I don’t want to start a fight, so I say
nothing”, or “When I tell her how I feel, she gets upset and I regret
ever bringing it up”, or “If I confide in him about my hurt feelings,
he tells me I am too sensitive and should just get over it.” These
anticipated scenarios are sufficient deterrents to exposing one’s tender

Reactions to feeling hurt vary. Some people become silent, fearful and
withdrawn, or may become defensive, insecure and more accommodating.
Others may react with anger and resort to aggression and verbal attacks.
None of these methods is ideal.

Unexpressed painful emotions are much more hazardous to the individual
and the relationship than any other negative by-product of discussing
them. The best way to reduce the recurrence of hurt feelings is by
talking about them and being heard, hopefully by a willing listener.

The hurt person and not the partner is the owner of the discomfort. The
mate can be a helpful aid in alleviating these emotions.

  • Start discussing your hurt feelings by owning them. “I’d like to tell
    you something about me”. This opening feels safe to the listener.
  • Relate the incident in an objective, non-accusatory language. “I feel
    hurt when I am interrupted when I speak”, rather than “when YOU
    interrupt me”. This “generic” language helps avoid defensiveness on the
    part of the partner.
  • The words “always” and “never” do not apply to human behavior. Avoid
    saying “you always interrupt me when I speak”. This can not be true and
    may lead to an unrelated argument about his behavior.
  • Do not start a sentence with YOU, unless it is complimentary. The
    sound of the word you at the start of a sentence evokes guilt and
    defensiveness unless it is followed by “beautiful”, “wonderful”,
    “special”, etc.
  • Start sentences with “I” and speak only about your experiences.
  • Use qualifying words such as “it appears to me” rather that “it is”.
    Personal accounts are often heard lovingly.
  • If you can, associate your hurt with earlier experiences, unrelated to
    the partner. “I remember how my father often interrupted me when I spoke
    and I felt unimportant. This probably makes it harder for me than
    perhaps for other people”.
  • Ask for what you need in a positive way. “I would feel more valued if
    you would allow me to finish speaking, and then respond”. This statement
    avoids accusatory requests.
  • Thank your partner for listening.
    The optimal response by the partner may be: “Thank you for sharing your
    feelings with me.”

Emotional pain is alleviated through attention and love. Listening to
the offended partner with sincere interest and presence helps facilitate
the healing of hurt feelings.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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